Change. It is a part of life, especially on the web. Evolve or die.
But some things need not change to be successful. In some cases change undermines your momentum, particularly in the field of search, where most of the traffic goes to the top couple ranked sites.
One of the biggest problems in the field of SEO for enterprise-level sites is content management. Product lines, editorial calendars, marketing, and content management systems often dictate that pieces and parts of a site are organized in a sub-optimal way and/or move locations.
Back in 1998 Tim Berners-Lee stated that Cool URIs don’t change:
There are no reasons at all in theory for people to change URIs (or stop maintaining documents), but millions of reasons in practice.
In theory, the domain name space owner owns the domain name space and therefore all URIs in it. Except insolvency, nothing prevents the domain name owner from keeping the name. And in theory the URI space under your domain name is totally under your control, so you can make it as stable as you like. Pretty much the only good reason for a document to disappear from the Web is that the company which owned the domain name went out of business or can no longer afford to keep the server running. Then why are there so many dangling links in the world? Part of it is just lack of forethought.
The 10 year old document is as relevant today as the day it was published. And perhaps even more so since search is the primary mode of navigation on the web.
Map it Out in Advance
One of the easiest ways to avoid site decay is to plan your site out in advance. When you know where something belongs and have given it proper foresight its half-life is much greater than a site built nearly at random. The following image shows an example of how you can plan out URLs, page titles, meta descriptions, on page headings, and related keyword modifiers to include in the page.
Archiving & Static Hub Sections
Many publishing based business models cover a seasonal topic, like Christmas or the Coachella music festival. Each year those publishers could create a new section with a filename like christmas2009, but doing so may make it harder to rank for core generic phrases like Christmas. When a person links to a very specific URL it does not consolidate PageRank and anchor text between years. So in a zen-like fashion changing URLs each year throws away your old anchor text and has you starting from scratch again.
A better solution is to use a filename like christmas, and each year update it to talk about the current year, while archiving the default page for the prior year as something like christmas/2009/. In doing this, the core URL (yoursite.com/christmas) keeps building PageRank and anchor text each year, building off of last year’s success. Old content remains archived, and can be easily findable by linking to archives from the core page.
If you wanted to combine many core related URLs like christmas2008 and christmas2007 into 1 URL you can do so through the use of 301 redirects. Keep in mind that you want to think through what URLs you want changed, which ones you do not want changed, and then use a server header checker to verify the proper response codes.
Reclaiming Lost Link Equity
If someone is linking to a page that no longer exists on your site you are wasting link equity and traffic. Some content management systems offer features or extensions that can be used to track 404s and other errors. Drupal offers an error log and this WordPress redirection plug in shows you pages people attempted to visit that returned a 404 status code. Your server logs should also help locate any pages with 404 status codes.
Once you discover a well linked to URL that no longer exists you have a couple options:
- Look through your back ups and/or Archive.org to see if any copies of the page’s content are still available. If the content was of high quality and you are uncertain why it went away then consider republishing the content on the same URL.
- If the page moved or the content is no longer relevant to your site, then 301 redirect the URL to a related page.
Google offers two tools to help you reclaim misdirected traffic and link popularity that is being wasted on dead URLs. They offer a 404 widget which can be used to help site users find related content on your site, which is useful for when someone makes a typo when typing out your filenames. Google Webmaster Central allows you to find 404 pages on your site that webmasters are linking to.
Aaron Wall is the author of SEO Book. He also works with Clientside SEM to help large corporate clients improve their search engine rankings. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.